From 12 October to 17 November the Mūkusala Art Salon hosted printmaker Paulis Liepa’s (born 1978) personal exhibition Still Life, which afforded a glimpse into some of the most intriguing achievements in Latvian printmaking of recent years. Liepa is an active participant in exhibitions at home and abroad and has won many awards, most recently at the International Print Triennial Kraków – 2012. In both his earlier and more recent works, the artist renounces many outdated ideas about the expressive means for creating graphic art, expanding the range to a point which in the discourse of several anti-aesthetic theories might be called the border between art and non-art, even if there are no doubts at all about Liepa belonging to the territory of art.

The central figures in Liepa’s prints are various details from the artist’s (and our own) daily life, functioning as occasionally nostalgic, sometimes ironic signs of time and place, forming an elegant visual meditation field. The initial impression prompts reflections on the unconventional visual style which differs greatly from local printmaking traditions, yet at the same time the artist’s close-up world view and use of detail as the basis for perceiving the environment has been typical of Latvian culture since the folk songs, in which the poeticising of all kinds of micro substances and phenomena like dew drops dominate over conventional epic narratives. From the small to the large, from the trivial to the significant – this is one way to describe Paulis Liepa’s artistic position and message structure. A more sensitive viewer, of course, may ask, indignantly, what the depictions of a bowl of soup or French fries may convey in an exhibition hall. Such more prosaic works point to another facet of Liepa’s work, namely visual clarity and easily discernible figures and motifs reduced to abstract, graphic signs, playing with the multiplicity of forms and subjecting them to rational improvement in the direction of geometric structures. The artist tries to escape from pompous, obvious pretensions to the artistic, deceiving viewers with seemingly rough and ready methods (so-called surrogate methods, collagraphy, cardboard cut-outs) and simplicity of depiction, but essentially his works are based on almost classic, carefully weighted compositional principles.

Latvian or non-Latvian, art or non-art – these are not, however, the right categories for evaluating and defining the attraction of Liepa’s works, even if they form part of one’s first impressions. Various compositional elements such as colour, the objects depicted and their stylisations, imitate late Soviet design styles. This is reminiscent of the trend of a few years ago for Soviet vintage, when the Soviet bourgeois aesthetic was reincarnated in trendy cafés and wardrobes, and resonated in the visual arts. For the Western world, the quotidian paradoxes and material culture of Soviet life are a kind of exotica, which enables them to come nearer and get a feel for an era in which they weren’t personally destined to live (and wouldn’t really have wanted to live anyway). This is ordinary cultural tourism, reminiscent of the early 20th century modernist fascination with art objects from Africa and other unorthodox cultures. For representatives of the post-Soviet cultural space, on the other hand, Soviet artefacts are often useful props for reflecting on social or personal questions. It is probably a natural outcome that Liepa’s generation (let’s recall Arnis Balčus’ exhibition ‘Amnesia’ in 2009) are the ones turning to a romantic nostalgia-based depiction of Soviet intellectual and material heritage, because their memories of the period are not coloured by social-political considerations; only the simplicity and concentration on the subjectively important that is characteristic of childhood.

Santa Mičule: Reading the texts about the works in your latest exhibition, it struck me that they say more about the peculiar way our society here, locally, views art, than the works themselves.  The domination of epithets like “anti-art”, “simplicity” or “seemingly primitive methods” show, to my mind, that the stereotypes about printmaking being a less contemporary, relevant medium are still widely held, and any departure from standard black-and-white graphic art is audacious and oppositionist. It also seems exaggerated to view you as an “outsider,” since you have represented Latvia at many significant international print exhibitions. How do you feel and where do you place yourself on the Latvian contemporary printmaking scene?

 Paulis Liepa: Latvia’s contemporary printmaking scene is compact enough and easy to view as a whole (like so much in our country), so it would be a bit much to view myself as an outsider.

A lot of the “simplicity” and “primitive methods” is a sort of “inhouse” jargon amongst printmakers and relates to the methods used in making prints which in my case are almost a part of the concept. Working with materials bought in a hardware store – PVA glue, cardboard, a knife.

And the stereotype about printmaking as a less contemporary or relevant medium is probably rooted in the very different ways of defining what graphic art means. Graphic artists themselves often see it as a competition of technical ability, to the average viewer “graphics” and “graphic art” are synonymous, while a more demanding audience would only acknowledge works falling under the most classical of traditions etc. 

So being accepted or not in this scene doesn’t bother me much. To me it’s much more important not to lose my inspiration, my belief in what I do and an ability to constantly find something new in it.

S.M.: This approach (simplified content and form, industrially coarse aesthetic) seems to be the polar opposite of your mother’s [one of the most important Soviet era printmakers Maija Dragūne – Ed.], works, which are technically refined and go beyond the realm of everyday experience. In what way have her works influenced your artistic thinking (if at all)?

P.L.: They have definitely influenced me, because her graphic art works and book illustrations have been in front of me ever since I can remember.

S.M.: In your latest works, the level of abstraction of form is constantly increasing, balancing on the border of becoming an expression of graphic design. Considering the tendency towards material subjects in your creative output, what role do you attribute to abstract forms and qualities?

P.L.: A very important role. The search for geometry in nature, still life drawings, precise circular lines, straight angles, plane surfaces. It all stands in contrast to the coating of dust, the riot of colours in a fruit salad and the infinite random numbers in our lives.

S.M.: So in a sense your graphic works are a search for the rational in an irrational world which is not art? Does this correlate with your attitude towards life, or does it appear only as an artistic position?

P.L.: It’s more like an attempt to avoid a subjective view of things, by giving an image the qualities of draughtsmanship or a technical drawing.

S.M.: By documenting various trivia, your works become very personal, because only you are aware of their true meaning, in a verbally inexpressible sense. Have you tried to work out for yourself why the closed world of your works is so interesting and compelling for other viewers?

P.L.: Possibly that world is not so closed, because they are things that anyone can relate to. Everyday trifles, faded plans of a room like receding memories of things we have never experienced. Cut up apples that immediately after the knife slices through them begin to dry and go yellow. These are images that, I hope, evoke in the viewers a feeling of home.

S.M.: Looking at your works for me brings up associations with a particular kind of search for lost time – is it important for you to record in your works and images something transient, preserving concrete, nostalgic emotions of the past?

P.L.: Most probably the importance of time and things is to do with my being an only child, who spent lots of time home alone with all sorts of possessions in the lunchtime quiet of the 1980s, when midday TV showed falling autumn leaves. 

Partly it is also a desire to do things the wrong way around – to immortalise “useless” objects, life’s offcuts, bits and pieces that have nevertheless at some unknown point in time played a microscopic role, and which give the image documentary gravitas.

S.M.: Rationalism as strange pictorial quotes from an anatomy textbook is revealed also in your earlier works, in which you address the various themes of cross sections and schematic biology. How did you arrive at these motifs?

P.L.: As a student at the academy, while leafing through various anatomy books I was attracted by the hint of surrealism and mysticism about them. That weird combination of meticulously drawn glands, heads sawed in half, the tongue’s pores etc., and the standard refusal to believe that that is the same structure we all share. There were also the possibilities for improvisation, combining and “improving” these images.

S.M.: You found your artistic signature and technical approach quite early – what is it that makes you stick with tried and trusted methods? Do you ever get bored with art as such?

 P.L.: If I were to count them, the number of works I have produced is actually not that high, considering the number of years I have put into it. And I have made the pictures in bursts of activity, which may be why I haven’t got sick of it all yet. Whether it’s for a solo show or some other event, usually there’s a few months of intensive printing, followed by a post-exhibition spiritual hangover. Besides, when I look at the works again after a few months I’m never really satisfied with what I’ve done, so that motivates me to work and create new works to show people, instead of the crummy old ones.

 S.M.: Can you briefly describe the criteria according to which you judge your own art and art in general?

P.L.: The criteria are a mystery. And they rarely repeat themselves. One criterion (and possibly the main one) could be that I know too much about my pictures and how they were created.

But when evaluating art in general, I trust my first impressions and the function of “these works speak to me”. However, we are rarely able to decode the frequencies and language by which these works address our subconscious. It could be the colours, a daub, the spaces, the city around you and similar.

S.M.: You seem to be quite fluent in the visual language of graphic design. Have you ever done it for money? More than one artist has “got back” against the consumer culture they are forced
to serve to make ends meet by ironic references to its imagery in their work.

P.L.: Yes. I’ve always worked for money (mostly animation, but also a lot of graphic design) in parallel to art. Or, more likely, the other way around. Creating art is my hobby, and that’s a good thing. Because it would be so much worse if the process of creating art felt like routine...

S.M.: Which artists do you consider to be the closest to you, in terms of creative thinking? In Latvia, the first person that comes to my mind (due to certain thematic similarities) is Andris Eglītis, of course, but there are big differences in your works as regards mood and narrative levels. Which artists dwell a top your “Olympian heights”?

P.L.: At one stage I used to think that Ernests Kļaviņš and Ansis Butnors in their pictures perceive the melancholy side of life. But maybe it just seemed that way, because we were in the same class, the same academy, in the same 1990s.

S.M.: You seem to participate in exhibitions abroad more often than in Latvia. In which cultural environment do you feel most at home? Has establishing yourself in a foreign artistic environment given you any significant insights into the pluses and minuses of contemporary Latvian printmaking?

P.L.: The impression about being abroad a lot probably comes from my semi-regular involvement in various international triennials and biennials. Of course, it’s easier to create works abroad, because people there judge your offering “from zero”, they have no preconceptions about you as an artist.  As regards Latvia’s pluses and minuses, it’s the same old story. The only thing worse than the fact that everyone-knows-everyone is the people who have withdrawn into their shell, and view any radical creative departures with extreme caution. This makes it almost impossible to get an objective assessment of things. Either you say only good things – or nothing at all. Like at funerals. But an artist shouldn’t worry too much about that, because your greatest critic and fan is in any case yourself. If you start accommodating public taste and going with the flow, then you have no one to blame but yourself.

Translator into English: Filips Birzulis

This article is re-published in collaboration with visual arts magazine "Studija", from issue 87, year 2012.